Kyle Hines put aside NBA dream to be one of the best Americans to ever play in Europe

Kyle Hines left South Jersey in 2008 for Europe thinking he would return soon. Playing basketball overseas, Hines figured, would give him a chance to develop his game and make the improvements scouts told him they wanted to see. Then he’d be in the NBA.

But Hines is now readying for another season — his 15th — abroad. The Camden County native is one of the greatest Americans to ever play in Europe, where he’s built a career of lucrative contracts while winning championships with powerhouse teams and setting records. And he’s done it all without ever playing in the NBA.

“I always felt like I wanted the NBA dream to happen,” said Hines, who grew up in Sicklerville. “But I’m really thankful that it didn’t happen because it gave me a lot of opportunities and memories that, growing up in South Jersey, I never thought I would have.”

Hines will play this season for Olimpia Milano, who he helped win the Italian league title last season. He has played for teams in Italy, Greece, Germany, and Russia, is the first American in the modern era to win four EuroLeague titles, and is EuroLeague’s all-time offensive rebounder.

Hines worked his way onto the team at Timber Creek, got to UNC Greensboro thanks to the approval of a sports writer, and has built a career 5,000 miles from home.

“Maybe I would’ve been a rotational player or a fringe player coming off the bench,” Hines said of the NBA. “But for me to go to the EuroLeague and win EuroLeague titles and win championships and be part of the history of Europe and some of the most famous clubs in Europe, I would never change that.”

Hines, 35, was cut from his team in eighth grade and barely made the freshman team at Camden Catholic. But he kept his dream alive thanks to a growth spurt — Hines grew six inches between eighth and ninth grade — and a work ethic inherited from his parents.

Hines woke up at 5:30 am each morning that summer to run before playing basketball, determined to get on the court. Hines transferred as a sophomore to Timber Creek, made the varsity team, and blossomed into one of South Jersey’s better players.

Before his senior year, an assistant coach at UNC Greensboro noticed him at a basketball camp and told head coach Fran McCaffery — the Philly native who now coaches Iowa — about Hines. McCaffrey needed another look. So he sent his older brother, Jack, a long-time sports writer at the Delaware County Times to watch Hines play at the Sonny Hill League. The sports writer told the coach that Hines was fit for the team.

Hines left UNC Greensboro as the sixth college player to ever record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocks. He shined in the summer of 2008 at the Portsmouth Invitational, an annual showcase for NBA prospects, but went undrafted.

The NBA, Hines said, was a different league then. A center had to be 6-foot-10. A power-forward had to be 6-foot-8. So they tried to make Hines — “I’m 6-foot-4, 6-5 on a good day,” he said — play small forward. It didn’t work.

“It was that time period of basketball,” he said. “Now, basketball is positionless. You can have five guards on the court. It wasn’t anything about my skills; I just think teams were afraid to take me because they didn’t know what position to play me at.”

Hines played in the NBA Summer League with the Charlotte Bobcats — “That’s how old I am,” he said — before taking his talents to Europe. The NBA still was his dream, but he soon realized in that first season that he could make a career elsewhere.

He won his first EuroLeague title in 2012 with Olympiacos BC , was EuroLeague’s defensive player of the year last season with Olimpia Milano, and has made a life in Europe. His wife, Gianna, and his children — Anya and Justin — live with him during the season. His daughter learned to speak some Russian while he played for CSKA Moscow and now wants to learn Italian so she can talk to kids on the playgrounds in Milan. The kid from Sicklerville, which Hines often calls himself, has shown his family the world.

“That’s what you want for your kids, right? You want your kids to have a better experience than you had,” Hines said. “That’s exactly what I want. I want them to have this foundation like when they’re going to classes when they’re older and they’re talking about the Coliseum, they can say ‘I was actually there’ or ‘I grew up there.’ It’s important. It’s one of the blessings that I’ve been able to give them because of basketball. My son and daughter have more stamps in their passports than the majority of the people in the world, and they’re not even 5 or 6 years old yet. For us, it’s a huge blessing.”

Hines said he not only enjoys the pace of life in Europe — which Hines said is much more relaxed than America — but enjoys Europe’s style of play. He said European hoops is “the true essence of basketball.” Hines has carved a career by being a true role player, doing whatever his team needs of him. He can grab rebounds, score, and play defense.

“The European style is a more collective, team-oriented game where the NBA or American style, high school, and college is more isolation based where you have your star player and your star player takes the majority of the shots,” Hines said. “The European game, you have 12 players on the team, and they share the minutes and everyone shares the load. One night it’s one guy, the next night it’s someone else’s night. Going there taught me how to play basketball and as a true basketball fan, I’d rather play this style. I learned how to play basketball in Europe.”

Hines returns home each summer for eight weeks before leaving for another new season. Hines tries to do as much as he can during his time home — “I’m trying to do in two months what everyone does in a year,” Hines said — before it’s time to leave again. He’s playing this summer in the TBT tournament, hosted two summer camps for kids at his old high school, and refurbished the two basketball courts at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.

Hines often will get stopped for photos on the streets of the European towns he’s playing in as over there he’s “Kyle Hines, the basketball player.” But back home, he can slide into relative anonymity as “just Kyle,” despite being a star overseas. It’s one of the perks, Hines said, of building a basketball career outside of the NBA. And it’s something that he could not have imagined 15 years ago when he left home with plans to come back.

“I don’t think he would even believe me,” Hines said of what his 22-year-old self would’ve thought of him now. “I think he would throw some expletives my way and tell me to get out of here. You know how it is. When you’re younger, you might not see that intended path that is carved out for you. I had tunnel vision. Going to Europe expanded my mind.

“Not to get philosophical, but I think everyone kind of has an intended path. Sometimes your path isn’t necessarily what you think it’s going to be. My path was laid out the way it was for me, and I’m thankful that it occurred that way. “It’s not necessarily NBA or bust all the time. You can do other things.”

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